Sunday, April 21, 2013

Superintendent testifies before state legislature on budget issues

Superintendent Bill Kowba testified before the California Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Subcommittee 1: Education on April 18. Here are his remarks on the topic of school district perspectives on local control funding formula.

Good morning Chairman Block, Senator Wyland, Senator Wright and Senator Leno:

Bill Kowba
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from UT San Diego»
I am Bill Kowba, Superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District. Thank you for the opportunity to address you today to share my perspective on Governor Brown’s proposed Local Control Funding Formula and its impact on school districts.

Let me begin by giving the members of the committee an overview of San Diego Unified to provide context for the diverse student population we serve. As the second largest school district in the state, we serve more than 130,000 students in pre-school through 12th grade. Approximately 65 percent of our students are free and reduced lunch recipients and 27 percent are English learners. In an urban setting as large and diverse as ours, with 223 schools, enhancing a district’s ability to design programs that best meet the needs of our students is of high importance. It is of equal significance that students with the greatest needs are provided adequate and even additional resources required to succeed in the classroom. These are two goals the Governor’s LCFF proposal is trying to achieve, and two of the reasons why San Diego Unified fully supports the proposal.

Support for LCFF: Focus on Local Decision Making, Flexibility and Accountability

I commend Governor Brown for his determined advocacy for public K-12 education and for his visionary leadership in restructuring an archaic education finance system.

I believe Governor Brown’s proposed new formula will address many problems inherent in the state’s existing K-12 funding structure. This major overhaul in education finance is a significant improvement relative to the current system. The existing distribution of state funds is convoluted and based on dozens of categorical programs with many restrictions and reporting requirements to the state.

With equity and flexibility as two of the core principles in the Governor’s proposal, the San Diego Unified Board of Education unanimously passed a resolution on April 9, explicitly stating the district’s support for the LCFF proposal with its focus on local decision making, local accountability and extended flexibility. We support the goal of developing a new state school finance system that is simple and transparent, one that focuses on local control and results in increased community engagement.

We enthusiastically back the Governor’s commitment to ensuring our education system is equitable and fair. Regardless of a school district’s student population or its geographical location in the state, school districts with the highest number and largest concentration of low-income and English learners deserve supplemental resources to help our neediest young people meet state standards and graduation requirements.

Maintaining the concentration thresholds of 50 percent at a district average, as currently proposed by the Governor's plan, will enable school districts to target supplemental resources to EL and low-income students. In the case of English learners, our district leadership and parent advisory committees may decide these students need supplemental services such as tutoring and smaller class sizes.

The specific strategies we would pursue will depend on whether the English learner is an elementary or secondary student. Best practices are linked to grade level. Having this local discretion in allocating resources is essential as districts create school budgets.

Given the scale, multi-community diversity and sizable continuum of student needs in San Diego Unified, we believe the district leadership is better suited to make decisions on how to allocate the resources appropriated by the state as we are the ones working closely with our students to reduce dropout rates, increase high school graduation rates and advance preparation for college and career.

By shifting decision making to the local level, school districts will better allocate resources to programs and school-site initiatives that have demonstrated positive academic results at our campuses. We are committed to continuing to place emphasis on programs currently funded through categorical revenues, yet our evaluation of school needs’ may encourage the district to focus funds on some areas more than others.

This proposal of extended flexibility is an opportunity for school districts to assess what strategies are working at our highest performing schools, consider replicating promising pilot initiatives and shifting the allocation of state resources for particular interventions we see working well in our schools. Our district staff, in consultation with the School Board and our stakeholder advisory committees composed of parents and community leaders will be better positioned to allocate the resources and prioritize initiatives.

A case in point, San Diego Unified may choose to fund additional Advance Placement and Career Technical Education courses as we continue to prepare our high school students to be career- or-college-ready. Some of our schools may benefit from additional instructional support for the language immersion and biiteracy programs.

We may decide to reduce class size at our high need sites and hire counselors or librarians since these positions are the ones we’ve had to eliminate or reduce during the painful years of budget cutting. As we prepare to implement the Common Core Standards, we may consider providing additional support for our teachers in the form of professional development, which has been dramatically reduced since the onset of the recession in 2008.

In the recent California Department of Education’s release on the 2012 graduation and drop-out rates, San Diego Unified proudly exceeded all of the state averages by increasing graduations and decreasing drop-outs. In fact, we attained the lowest drop-out rate among California’s large urban districts and the second highest graduation rate among our peer districts. This is validation that we are pursuing strategies that work and that are helping our students graduate from high school with the necessary skills and knowledge to enroll in college or compete in the workforce.

We also support the Governor’s plan to maintain the Targeted Instructional Improvement Block Grant (TIIBG) as an add-on to the formula. It has been a critical, stand-alone integration fund that has benefitted many of our students for decades as San Diego Unified was one of the districts subject to court desegregation orders. The court has acknowledged the district has remained committed to achieving the integration goals, and to that end, San Diego Unified has continued to use TIIBG resources for transportation activities attributed to desegregation.

We have also applied these funds to other integration strategies, including increasing enrollment options for our students who live in racially isolated areas, decreasing class sizes for high needs schools, transporting our students to magnet schools across the district, and increasing parent involvement.
I am confident that the proposed finance system will allow local educators and communities to adapt, innovate and respond to changing student needs. Under LCFF, district and school staff will spend far less time navigating the cumbersome bureaucracy created over decades by layers of restrictions and requirements and instead focus on improving educational outcomes in response to being held accountable for raising student achievement across the board.

More Clarity on Role of COE and What New Accountability System Means

Before I conclude, I would like to make a few remarks in the area of accountability. We look forward to receiving additional direction on what the proposed accountability system will look like, and we encourage the Governor’s office, the Legislature and Department of Education to engage school districts in developing an accountability plan that is not cumbersome, but one that is simple, straight forward and implementable.

The accountability proposal currently envisions that each County Office of Education to review the local accountability plans for all school districts within its county concurrently with its review of district budgets. We are concerned about the implications of this approach because of the broad diversity of County Office capabilities around the state. Each County Offices of Education in the state conducts a variety of activities depending on the size of the county and the characteristics of the districts they serve. Before implementing this accountability review approach, school districts and County Offices of Education will need to be informed on the responsibilities County Offices of Education will have under this new system and what the consequences will be, if any, if districts fail to comply with their plan.

While it is important that County Offices of Education to review the District Plans on an annual basis, this examination should be limited to a fiscal analysis, not one based on evaluating whether schools have met academic progress. This separation of fiscal review versus academic performance review is very important as many school districts across the state believe student achievement and academic progress should not be part of the County Offices of Education.

While the accountability structure is further defined, the state should consider convening a stakeholder advisory group to assist with the development and adoption of the Local Control and Accountability Plan so the county's superintendent role in reviewing district's plan is clear.

One final point on accountability. I am aware that concerns have been raised that the proposed local decision making and flexibility granted to school districts does not factor in an accountability system that will ensure the supplemental funds are being spent on the neediest students: English learners, low-income and foster care youth. I disagree with and challenge these concerns, as I believe the proposed formula will empower parents and community members to hold school districts accountable for ensuring the funds are being used for the most disadvantaged students.

Conclusion: Education Finance Reform is Needed Now

In conclusion, how best to improve upon the existing K-12 funding system has been discussed by stakeholder groups for many years, San Diego Unified believes that the need for action grows increasingly urgent.

Not only does a strong rationale exist for restructuring the current flawed system, but the passage of Prop 30 and projected annual growth in Prop 98 minimum guarantee serves as a unique opportunity to transition to a more rational funding system that is equitable and one which allocates a share of new funds in a way that more closely aligns with current student needs.

School districts have suffered more than $20 billion in reductions and deferred payments from the state since 2007-2008, and our school district has had its own share of these cuts. Thanks in large part to Governor Brown; the passage of Proposition 30 will serve to stop additional cuts to schools. California¹s public schools must be funded at a level that allows them to meet the state¹s expectations, and to serve all students while providing them with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in today¹s society.

Thank you for the opportunity to provide you San Diego Unified’s perspective. I welcome any questions from members of the committee.